Elections have consequences, and the most recent election in Sonoma has resulted in a progressive City Council which, in turn, has appointed a more progressive Planning Commission. As a result, land speculators and commercial developers now find their plans more closely examined to ascertain if they offer broad community benefit or simply line the pockets of investors looking to make a hefty profit. And when their plans are blocked or permits denied, they start to complain publicly about private property rights and the proper role of government.
Somewhere along the line, land speculators and developers got the impression that government’s role is to help them make money, and they justify that point of view by talking about “job creation,” and the inevitability of change. This very same set of justifications has resulted in the most severe income inequality in America’s history, all in the name of “progress.”
To put it simply, ultra-capitalists advocate government take a hands-off role when it comes to business, except when it comes to lowering taxes on corporations and the wealthy.
Here in Sonoma and Sonoma Valley, we’ve always had our fair share of development, and anyone who’s lived here for several decades knows that change is always in the works. Though wine grapes have always been the primary agricultural activity in our area, the last few decades have seen a vast increase in both vineyards and winery activity, and promoting the area to tourists entails millions of dollars of promotional and advertising expense.
The money tourists bring is welcome, but tourism also brings costs, in the form of traffic, issues of public safety, rent inflation, reduced housing for low-paid workers, and increased greenhouse gas emissions.
When the winery-tourism industry slips into a vicious cycle, it’s government’s role to intercede. A vicious cycle is one in which growth and expansion is necessary to sustain income to pay debts incurred on the presumption of future growth. At their most extreme, such cycles display the characteristics of “boom and bust” wherein those with overextended debt fail when demand slackens. “Free market” proponents boast about the benefits to the economy when things are on the upside, but are notably silent when the downside happens. Accordingly, government’s role is to moderate these extremes, and use its police power to restrain oversaturated markets, regulate out-of-control rents, and evaluate whether a project is too big or too intense for a given location.
Sonoma Plaza, in particular — the remarkable heritage of over a century and half of care and cultivation — deserves special attention. The city’s effort to regulate wine tasting rooms and wine bars is an example of special attention. In 2013 there were 13 wine tasting rooms in the Plaza area; today there are 34.
These retail locations may be popular with tourists, but overall they add little to city revenues, employ relatively few people, and as promotional locations their presence has jacked up rents all over the Plaza. Their proliferation deserves a closer look, and in our opinion, more regulation.
We appreciate that the current City Council majority is grappling with issues that have been unexamined for far too long. If, understandably, some speculators and developers don’t like it, we would remind them that those elected represent the collective will of the citizens; you don’t get much more “free market” than that.
— Sun Editorial Board